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Getting a Literature Ph.D. Will Make You Into a Horrible Person 489

An anonymous reader writes "An assistant professor at Ohio State University who recently earned her Ph.D. in literature writes a warning in Slate for others following the same path. She says, 'I now realize graduate school was a terrible idea because the full-time, tenure-track literature professorship is extinct. After four years of trying, I've finally gotten it through my thick head that I will not get a job—and if you go to graduate school, neither will you. ... Don't misunderstand me. There is unquantifiable intellectual reward from the exploration of scholarly problems and the expansion of every discipline—yes, even the literary ones, and even if that means doing bat-s**t analysis like using the rule of "false elimination" to determine that Josef K. is simultaneously guilty and not guilty in The Trial. But there is one sort of reward you will never get: monetary compensation from a stable, non-penurious position at a decent university. ... By the time you finish—if you even do— your academic self will be the culmination of your entire self, and thus you will believe, incomprehensibly, that not having a tenure-track job makes you worthless. You will believe this so strongly that when you do not land a job, it will destroy you, and nobody outside of academia will understand why. (Bright side: You will no longer have any friends outside academia.) ... In the place of actual jobs are adjunct positions: benefit-free, office-free academic servitude in which you will earn $18,000 a year for the rest of your life."
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Getting a Literature Ph.D. Will Make You Into a Horrible Person

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  • Don't go there! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Friday April 05, 2013 @12:28PM (#43369309) Homepage

    Of course, a PhD in literature (of all things) is not going to be a meal ticket for the vast majority of people. How many tenure track positions SHOULD there be for literature studies? A couple of hundred in the US? It's a tiny, tiny sliver of adult life. If you have a burning desire to expound on the mysteries of "Gravity's Rainbow" and you think you need to devote your life to it, go ahead. The world might be a better place for it. But expecting to get a job doing that? Not so much.

    There are PhD level studies that can reliably lead to gainful employment, but that's not what doctorate level education has been about. I think it would reflect nicely on our society if you COULD expect to devote your like to James Joyce and get compensated for your efforts, but we're a long way away from that particular utopia.

    If you need money, get a job. If you have money, do what makes you happy and fulfilled. Don't necessarily conflate the two.

  • You wouldn't believe (Score:4, Interesting)

    by kilodelta ( 843627 ) on Friday April 05, 2013 @12:31PM (#43369323) Homepage
    The number of English Lit and Semiotics types I've encountered in the I.T. field. It's incredible.
  • by RobinH ( 124750 ) on Friday April 05, 2013 @12:31PM (#43369327) Homepage
    As a psychologist in a lot of jurisdictions you *need* a Ph.D. to get licensed and get a job. Lots of people take undergrad psychology and then say, "now what?" That's not a good plan either. I think it pays to research this stuff ahead of time. BTW, you have a degree in literature? Why not become an author? Or, I dunno, get a job at a factory and read books on your lunch break like the rest of us?
  • Hmmm ... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Friday April 05, 2013 @12:38PM (#43369413) Homepage

    Not to downplay this persons experience ... but, since this is Slashdot, and a tech-heavy web site ... show of hands for people who are shocked a PhD in literature may not be an awesome career path? Anybody?

    Universities are pinched, and there's an increasing move among governments to say "why are we training people for stuff for which there are no jobs?". I knew someone years ago who was in his 5th year of university, working on a BA in English, had massive debts, and no prospects -- and the question at the time was, "other than personal interest, what will this degree ever do for you?". He had no idea about that.

    Unfortunately, much of the 'humanities' subjects in university are so specialized and highly focused, that it's hard not to see how some of this is relevant to anybody except other people with PhDs in the field.

    I've known a few people who studied post-modernism in literature ... and even they couldn't tell me what you'd use it for other than a purely academic discussion. For that matter, they mostly can't even define what post-modernism is to a layman, or why it has to be so incomprehensible that a computer generated paper gets accepted into journals.

    Sadly, some degrees can only qualify you for academia, and if those positions aren't available, what have you gained by it? The ability to cite Chaucer while asking me if I want fries?

  • Re:In other news (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 05, 2013 @12:39PM (#43369423)

    People with doctorates in mathematics should not be unemployable given the rise of data analysis. If they can't find a job, then there is likely something else going on. Either they are making bad choices as to where to interview, are just a shitty interview, aren't as smart as they think they are, or they come across as toxic. As someone who has been a hiring manager in tech fields for a while, I see a lot of this. People who on paper look good but clearly can't communicate with another human being or demonstrate any of their supposed knowledge.

  • by blue trane ( 110704 ) on Friday April 05, 2013 @12:39PM (#43369425) Homepage Journal

    People should study what they want. Productivity increases mean we can provide for everyone with fewer people needed. That means we can easily afford a basic income, and challenges to stimulate individuals to unleash the native curiosity and creativity most of us are born with. We need to rethink pre-industrial age, feudal economics and understand that money is a tool that should benefit us, instead of a God demanding human sacrifice.

  • by khallow ( 566160 ) on Friday April 05, 2013 @12:47PM (#43369509)
    I have tried twice to get a PhD in math, finally getting it in 2009. I figured out fairly early that a PhD in math wasn't going to go far for me into academia career-wise especially with the weaknesses I have as a researcher and teacher. I did it because partly due to stubbornness and partly because I wanted to learn how to think at a really deep level.

    Now, I'm an accountant working from the heart of a supervolcano []. It doesn't pay well, but I live in a cool place, have plenty of time off over the year, save a bit of money, and am picking up some useful experience. I do find the occasional use for my mad math skillz, but I accept that I'm not going to be fully challenged at a job like this.
  • by rknop ( 240417 ) on Friday April 05, 2013 @12:50PM (#43369557) Homepage

    It that you will *think* you're a horrible person. If you can't get a job in an academic tenure-track position, you'll think that you're worthless, a failure, that you haven't lived up to your own expectations of yourself and everybody else's expectations of you.

    You won't *be* horrible, but you'll *think* you're horrible.

    I've been there. Right now, I'm one of the EXCEPTIONALLY LUCKY in that I'm a 40-something who's in a Unviersity job. (We don't have tenure where I am, but it's a small teaching-oriented liberal arts college of exactly the sort I always wanted to teach at.) But, I've been in the position of trying to find a job and not being able to, and of being on the tenure track with certainty that I was going to get turned down because I couldn't get money out of highly overtaxed funding agencies. And I felt like a complete, worthless failure, somebody who's life didn't add up to a damn thing, somebody who couldn't do anything. THAT is how a PhD (mine is in Physics) turns you into a horrible person.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 05, 2013 @12:51PM (#43369561)

    Yup. It's true in the sciences too. I have first-hand experience of it. A big part of the problem is tenure; get rid of it.

  • Re:Auto Tech (Score:4, Interesting)

    by CanHasDIY ( 1672858 ) on Friday April 05, 2013 @12:57PM (#43369631) Homepage Journal

    Could you elaborate on why it's worthlesss? It's a STEM field that's supposed to pay well.

    Auto shops don't give two shits about education or experience - basically, if you don't have that patch on your shirtsleeve that says "ASE" on it, you're worthless in their eyes.

    Still, it was good experience: I know which shops are honest and which are crooks, and I can make/fix damn near anything electro-mechanical.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 05, 2013 @12:57PM (#43369637)

    As an employer, I try to set aside the fact that college graduates have wasted years being spoon-fed when they could have been out in the real world inventing things, learning from experience, etc. That's more difficult for someone with a masters, and almost impossible for someone with a PhD. The number of high end degrees that walk in and end up walking right back out again because they have no real world programming skills is very high. There are exceptions, of course, but they are rare. When it comes to collections of practical skills, college grads tend to be on the very short side. Nor does having bulled their way through various useless, unrelated classes help them in any way.

    The good news for those people is that there are a lot of other places where hiring is done by HR instead of people who do real work; since HR has no idea how to measure competence, they shoot their own company in the foot by substituting paperhanging. It works for me; it'll be years before those people can do real work at any reasonable rate; in the interval, we always outperform them.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 05, 2013 @12:59PM (#43369673)

    I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, natural history and naval architecture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, tapestry, and porcelain.

    - John Adams

  • As someone who was told this 20 years ago but saw through it, let me say that there is plenty of room for literature majors in private industry -- the trick is to not believe everything you're told by the university literature culture, and keep those social connections outside of the field. There are also a significant number of positions available for decent pay within academia, as long as you don't mind not working in the field that stems directly out of your thesis.

    Part of the problem is that many literature majors get their PhD and feel like they have arrived and deserve the tenure track positions -- when there's really only a limited market compared to the number of people seeking those positions. BUT, with a bit more education in linguistics, design, computing science, or a number of other areas, suddenly you're someone who can land anything from an administrative job designing courses for ESL schools, to a community college languages head (they love to get people with a PhD and diverse training) to work at a marketing or communications firm, to a research job at a tech firm.

    These positions will make anywhere from $48-120K as a starting salary. The trick is to remember to balance literature research with real life. It can be done. I know a number of people from the field who have done it, and thrived.

  • by TheoMurpse ( 729043 ) on Friday April 05, 2013 @01:12PM (#43369845) Homepage

    The problem is, as many of us have seen with our own two eyes, professors doing important but controversial work would get fired without tenure. The entire stem cell research field would probably never have happened in the US.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 05, 2013 @01:14PM (#43369879)

    Tenure is important though, while it can and is abused it is a very important part of the University culture. There needs to be a way to be able to do research that is scoffed at by colleagues and even your own university without being threatened with a firing. While there are professors that go and do jack shit after getting tenure and are dicks to their students that's more of a failing of the department and University. They shouldn't have granted that person tenure in the first place. I think that needs to be what changes. Not every person who takes up a full contract in the department needs to get tenure and just because you meet the minimum requirements you shouldn't necessarily be able to obtain a tenure position just because you are on the tenure track. That's the bullshit, it should be reserved for special achievers that would at least cut down on the number of assholes who make it look bad.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 05, 2013 @01:21PM (#43369975)

    That would be a good thing. Forward thinking progressive societies should be rewarded. If the majority of the US public does not want stem cell research then they should not get it - and suffer the consequences.

  • Maybe (Score:4, Interesting)

    by geek ( 5680 ) on Friday April 05, 2013 @01:28PM (#43370053)

    I work in IT and have since 1997 or so. When I started in IT there really wasn't a college course in IT available. You learned on the job. Some jackass employers would require a CS degree at the time for simple IT work but that's because IT was semi new and they just didn't know what they were doing.

    I didn't go to college until 2005. I was just too busy earning money to bother. I eventually went back to college and got an English degree because I already had a boat load of IT experience. I got my present job specifically because I had an English degree (they were sick of IT people that could barely read and write much less produce any type of legible documentation). I'm probably the exception to the rule but thinking on it, I really don't see the value of an IT degree today. There's literally nothing you can't figure out in IT with just some google searches and on the job training. My English degree however opened up a lot of doors for me, allowed me to pursue things I consider to be fun (working on a novel) and made my resume stand out enough that my present employer took notice.

  • by geek ( 5680 ) on Friday April 05, 2013 @01:36PM (#43370139)

    I think the error in your thinking is assuming all degrees should lead to a job. It used to be that college was cheap enough, even at the graduate level, that you could pursue it for enjoyment alone. At my Uni there were a large number of professors that didn't even enter graduate school until they were in their mid-40's or 50's and started teaching after that because they enjoyed it.

    I myself have an English degree because I wanted one, not because I was going to get rich from it. I lucked out and qualified for state and federal grants that made my education virtually free. I have no regrets.

    These people dropping 100k+ on a degree thinking they will become instant millionaires is what is driving up costs and setting unrealistic expectations. Just because you have a degree does not mean you are guaranteed a job, much less a high paying one. That goes for all degrees and all fields. Great, you got a degree. All that tells anyone is that you were able to foot the bill for a time, attend classes and do some homework.

    If I'm hiring someone and the job pays a good salary, I'm looking for what they can "do" more than what they "know."

  • by Charliemopps ( 1157495 ) on Friday April 05, 2013 @01:52PM (#43370373)

    People should study what they want. Productivity increases mean we can provide for everyone with fewer people needed. That means we can easily afford a basic income, and challenges to stimulate individuals to unleash the native curiosity and creativity most of us are born with. We need to rethink pre-industrial age, feudal economics and understand that money is a tool that should benefit us, instead of a God demanding human sacrifice.

    Bullshit. This kind of "we" and "our" think is exactly what's wrong with western society. The idea that I slave away at a job that I don't like so I can make X amount of money... but that money doesn't belong to me, it belongs to "us" and you're going to just move some of that money over and give it to someone that has a job that's interesting to them but doesn't provide for them financially is just plain evil.

    Doing something you love, just for the shear joy of it despite receiving little to no financial incentive to do so has a name. It's called ART.

    People should study what they want. But if what they study doesn't put food on the table, they need to find a way to do that. If they're not willing to sacrifice for their art, that's their problem, not the rest of societies.

  • by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 ) on Friday April 05, 2013 @01:59PM (#43370483)

    But at the university where I work, which is a pretty large one (about 40,000 students) "business types" in administration is not the problem, but quite the opposite. Administrative positions get appointed from faculty. Deans are faculty members promoted to administration, the president came from outside but is a PhD academic type and so on.

    Some of our problems actually stem from this in that it turns out being an academic doesn't necessary mean you understand how to deal with a budget, or handle personnel issues, or the other kinds of business related things that come with running a large department.

  • by Prune ( 557140 ) on Friday April 05, 2013 @02:07PM (#43370585)

    > People who want to study useless $H!T like art and literature should do so on their own dime and make sure they have a plan to earn a basic income of their own.

    I'm an electrical engineer and software developer, and I find your comment incredibly ignorant and offensive. Once a society gets above the level of mere subsistence, culture is pretty much the entire point of human existence. The extreme materialism and utilitarianism implied by your post shows how poor and undeveloped your worldview is.

  • Last of the Mohicans (Score:5, Interesting)

    by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) on Friday April 05, 2013 @02:50PM (#43371165) Journal

    I'm living proof that a PhD in Literature will make you a horrible person.

    I was probably part of the penultimate group of Literature PhDs who got the sweet jobs, and even then, in the early '80s, we could see where the Age of Reagan was going to take the world. We could see that the people who could make a good living, buy a house, raise a family, in a job that didn't require a college degree were in the crosshairs of the economic elite. Those people, like my dad, who came back from the China-Burma Theater of WWII with shrapnel in his hip and a cheap Purple Heart on his chest, and who followed the social contract to the letter just could not be allowed to enter the ownership class. Dad went to work before he got a high school diploma, and then to war after Pearl Harbor, and came back to the possibility (thanks to the GI Bill, veterans' benefits, etc) could improve his life, buy a single family home, a car every 4 or 5 years and put me and my sister through school. Thanks to the union, jobs were stable enough that he stayed with the same, successful company for 40 years and his income was sufficient so Mom could stay home and raise us kids. Thanks to Social Security and Medicare, his parents and my Mom's parents could grow old and die with some dignity, as could Dad and Mom when the time came. There was stability. There was certainty, and that stability - that certainty - created the strongest peacetime economy in the history of the world. Women could enter the workplace and vote and started to gain political power. The civil rights movement saw a time when the Black community became more prosperous and gained political power. And the economic elite saw all of this as a threat that could not be allowed. Enter: Ronald Reagan. Supply-side economics. Peacetime budget deficits. Talk of "entitlement reform". Talk of "welfare reform" to stop what he told people were the greedy black welfare queens who were all eating steak and driving Cadillacs. The beginning of the "Christian Right" and the "Silent Majority". The Reagan Justice Department sought a "constitutional right to own guns" and got Rhenquist to sign off on this new right. And in this way, the seeds of division were sown that would make the increasingly powerful middle class to start eating one another politically. The social contract wasn't worth the toilet paper it had apparently been printed on.

    So even back in those early 80's, when AIDS was barely on peoples' radar, while crack was hollowing out the cities, when the "Savings and Loan Scandal" was too complicated for people to see the complicit hand of the economic elite, even then you could see that the kind of stable growth we were experiencing as a nation - as a society - was in danger from the greed and cupidity of the ones Reagan told us would "trickle" their wealth down on the rest.

    I could see then that the young grad students in my classes were probably not going to have anything like the experience I had, nor would they have anything like the experience my father had. Gordon Gecko was telling them that "Greed is good" after all, and the inevitable bubble that Reagan's tax cuts for the rich would create was still inflating.

    I got out in '04. Twenty years after my first tenure-track position and twenty-five after I got that sweet PhD in a field that would only be worthwhile as long as peoples' souls weren't crushed. By 2004, they were pretty thoroughly crushed.

  • by Grishnakh ( 216268 ) on Friday April 05, 2013 @03:08PM (#43371391)

    Have you ever been to an American high school? They're not much different from a prison. Why on earth would anyone want a job teaching the behaviorally-challenged and often violent students there?

    Even in the better high schools, there's a huge difference between being a high school teacher and a college (even community college) professor. As a professor, you can concentrate on the material and teaching it to the students. As a high school teacher, you have to concentrate on being a disciplinarian instead of teaching.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 05, 2013 @03:24PM (#43371619)

    Holy cow, this comment is ignorant. I have a Ph.D. in literature from a top university. I got a job at a tenure-track, Research I university right out of graduate school -- which was a miracle in and of itself, given what jobs were out there at the time -- and after 5 years of living in a remote area far removed from friends and family, not to mention being underpaid, I decided to move back to the East coast to live closer to my family. I searched for another teaching job -- any teaching job: high school, public, private, tutoring -- for three years. What's available aren't "hundreds and thousands of education jobs in high schools or for tutoring or private schools" (did you just pull that out of your ass?) -- What's available are thousands of education jobs that 1) pay no benefits, 2) pay by course and generally below the poverty level, 3) are on a per-semester contract basis.

    I'm now going into instructional technology, which has vastly greater prospects. The future of teaching -- high school or otherwise -- is in contingent labor, laborers who will be vastly undereducated in comparison to those from previous generations of teachers who were properly compensated and appreciated by students, parents, and their society at large.

    Get a fucking clue, dude. Your private catholic high school experience does not remotely qualify you to claim some knowledge of the job industry for teachers.

  • by khallow ( 566160 ) on Friday April 05, 2013 @07:12PM (#43374093)

    culture is pretty much the entire point of human existence

    I can get a better culture by leaving milk out on the counter for a couple of weeks. At least, with materialism, you get stuff. Human existence doesn't have to have a point, be it culture, stuff, knowledge, morality, purpose, happiness, exploration, whatever. I don't have to care how "poor and undeveloped" someone's worldview is, although in practice, I do care.

  • Re:Not surprised (Score:5, Interesting)

    by DrVomact ( 726065 ) on Saturday April 06, 2013 @01:51AM (#43376545) Journal

    All the baby boomer professors will keep working for another 10 to 20 years. Until they retire, they are taking up a huge percentage of the available academic jobs. With regards to literature majors, the death of the publishing industry has killed any non-academic work. While there is still some work available, compared to even 10 years ago, it's peanuts.

    Huh? I am a baby boomer, and didn't get a tenure track job when I got my doctorate in Philosophy back in '78. I resent your implication that it's all my fault, sirrah!

    To be honest, I was told at the outset that my chances of landing an academic job if I got through the doctoral program were slim to none. Sure, enough, after I spent a couple of years working as an "adjunct" with an insulting salary, no respect, and no support from the college or the Philosophy department, I decided to look around for something better. Well, this was approximately in 1982, and somebody told me at just the right time to look at the then new computer field for jobs.

    First job I landed was as a software tech writer (O.K., the hiring manager was an ex-nun who wanted to talk philosophy over lunch...but I got hired.) Writing skills will always help, and Philosophy or Lit Ph.D.s should be able to know how to both read carefully and write skillfully. I jacked up my salary enormously over the next few years by making judicious job moves, and by learning programming and Unix internals skills. I did very well in nineties...until a couple of years after the dot com bust. The last eight years or so were crap because the "scientific managers" decided they had to subjugate the new class of technology-savvy workers, but all in all, I'm happy with the decisions I made.

    Note that I identified a new field that did not require credentials, because very few credentialed people were available at the time, and I persisted until I got that first job. (My job search only took me 6 months.) After I had something software-related to add to my resume', the Ph.D. actually became an advantage. It's easier to justify a bigger salary for someone by saying "he has a Ph.D." (and, as I pointed out to at least one manger, she could then complain that she had an employee that got paid more than she, and could ask for a raise of her own). The exact nature of your education doesn't really matter as much as you think it does. Even Comp Sci majors have to be taught how to do their jobs after they're hired. (Not that I'd recommend "IT" as a good place to work these days.)

    So if you've gotten a "useless" degree, look for something unusual to do for money, perhaps something new, or something you had never considered. Then work out a song and dance how your background somehow prepared you for your chosen field. If you are offered a job at a ridiculously low wage take it! It is that invaluable first item on your resume. You are now experienced! The nun was not able to pay me very well, but that's OK—I got a 25% raise when I made my first job move after 11 months on that first job. (Some day, I will tell you the story of how I did that.) Getting a good career started is a matter of determination, imagination, and ample chutzpah. You have will never be worth more than you think you are, so value yourself highly. Think strategically; you are in it for the long haul. Get out there and bag that first job.

"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts." -- Bertrand Russell